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Dez Santana is a born-and-raised New Yorker. I was put in touch with him via a common friend on Facebook and he graciously agreed to tell me about his experience during 9/11. Dez’s story is a little different, as he was present at “Ground Zero” for four months but does not have medical training or rescue training. However, his role was vital to the efforts. He works as a full-time land surveyor supervisor, and is a freelance photographer. Here is his story:

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was heading to work as normal. While travelling on the highway with my co-workers, we could see one tower burning. We turned on the radio and they said a small plane may have hit the tower. However, it was a clear blue sky, and I doubted that explanation. It was at this point I watched in disbelief as a second plane hit the second tower. We witnessed the impact and resulting fireball. I immediately called my sister who works near the World Trade Center and my ex-girlfriend. All circuits were busy. Nobody could get through. The only person with whom I could communicate was my father because both of us owned a Nextel radio.

My co-workers and I then proceeded towards the Brooklyn Bridge to pick up another co-worker, as our bosses told us to report to our job sites that day. After we picked him up, we heard that a co-worker was stuck on one of bridges we would eventually have to cross. It was closed in both directions so I decided to take us back to the office. At this point, we witnessed the first tower collapse.

Our office contacted us, instructing us to return home and to prepare to come to work the following morning at the now-collapsed World Trade Center. We were now considered First Responders. I remember feeling afraid and super-alert because we didn’t know if there were more attacks coming. We heard the Pentagon was hit, and the plane that went down in Pennsylvania. I remember feeling anger as well because another country had penetrated our defense systems.

Upon reporting the following day, and the many days after that, it was our job to monitor all structures above ground and below ground with highly accurate computerized surveying equipment. With the equipment, we could detect movement on the buildings. Since seven buildings collapsed at Ground Zero, there was small seismic activity registered, and other buildings, as well as the remains of the World Trade Center could have been compromised.

The First Responders participating in rescue attempts and clean-up could not work at the site unless we were watching structures. We had horns to notify personnel if there was movement on any of the buildings. They were required to evacuate and disperse if we sounded that horn. Luckily we never had to.

We worked at the site until December 31, 2001. We did 14 hour shifts, two days on, two days off to reduce people burning out. When my shifts were over, I went home. There, I’d peel off my dusty clothing in the hallway and shower. I’d watch the news, eat and go to sleep, knowing I’d be back at it all over again.

The worst part of the ordeal was knowing that thousands were dead and buried in the rubble. The combination odors of toxic fumes, death, and gasoline was something I never smelled before. I also saw many body parts, knowing each belonged to someone’s loved one. In our spare time and during breaks, we attempted to locate perished firemen in the debris with our scopes or surveying equipment.

I knew three people who died on that day. A fourth friend who was a police officer died years later of colon cancer. It was his job to dig through the debris searching for DNA.

Despite 15 years passing, being mentally strong, and able to cope with many things, I still have occasional nightmares. Usually I envision things like the city being under nuclear attack or something similar. I don’t have flashbacks when awake. I cope with the nightmares by realizing it’s just a dream.

Through the horror, there were positive moments. There was extreme patriotism exhibited after the attacks. Everyone was genuinely nicer towards each other. There were also emergency workers from all over the world who came to help us in this ordeal.

I will always remember. I have been in the Honor Guard twice during the 9/11 anniversaries at the World Trade Center site. I also honor the victims of that day with photography during the “Tribute In Light”: http://www.dezsantana.com/wtc_tribute. I photograph the Tribute every year and will have new additions soon. And I remember my friends who lost their lives that day or those who lost their lives later due to health complications from the rescue and clean-up efforts.

Thank you to Dez for the photos, for his memories, and for all he did in the aftermath of 9/11. Be sure to view his website at: http://www.dezsantana.com. On his website, you can find a yearly array of photographs of the World Trade Center “Tribute in Light.”

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Jessica McCaslin

Jessica is a mom who is working outside the home part-time and who is learning to cope with the ever-changing daily challenges of full-time parenthood. She graduated with her Master's degree in community counseling from the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2005, and works with a diverse mental health population. Jessica resides in Central Nebraska with her husband and four children on the family ranch.

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